Competition heats up Baltic retail markets

  • 2003-01-30
  • Thomas Foulquier

The Baltic states have long been a battleground for Nordic and local retailers, and increasingly fierce competition on all three markets suggests the landscape is far from settled.

Consumers in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are by now familiar with a vast array of brand names - both homegrown and from across the Baltic Sea - including Rimi, Citymarket, Prisma, Maxima and T-Market.

Meanwhile, all three Baltic capitals have seen the development of giant Western-style shopping malls - Akropolis in Vilnius, Alfa in Riga and the Kadaka Prisma Center in Tallinn.

Turnover figures suggest consumers like what they see. Norwegian, Finnish and local retailers operating under these and other brands have posted increased sales in recent weeks, and the interest has set off a furious battle for market share.

In Estonia, German newcomer Lidl has applied for the registration of 200 trademarks in the country. The retailer has already clashed with Finland's Kesko, operator of the popular Citymarket food chain, over a trademark dispute that has yet to be resolved.

Lidl and Saastumarket, a Kesko company, have remarkably similar trademarks and both are holding firm to keep them.

Kesko is also in court with Estonian hardware company K-Rauna ACE over a similar trademark dispute.

Analysts say the fight over trademarks proves the companies are taking the development of consumer loyalty seriously, suggesting that most view the market as an important battleground to which they will devote additional investment and resources.

Kesko, which also operates SuperNetto, was rated the most popular supermarket operator in Tartu, Estonia's second city, according to an October opinion poll by Estonia's Emor pollster.

In Tallinn, another Finnish company, Prisma, is on top, followed by Estonia's Selver. Norway's Rimi, owned by ICA Ahold and a massive presence on the Latvian market, is still languishing near the bottom in Estonia, according to the Emor poll.

The big question in 2003 will be the development of the largest domestic retailer, ETK, which saw sales rise 13 percent to 268 million euros last year.

One company for whom the Estonian market has proved particularly tough to conquer is Lithuania's Vilniaus Prekyba, which operates under the brand name VP Market.

Though it is the biggest retail chain in the Baltic states with 214 stores, the company has but one store in Estonia compared with 165 in Lithuania and 48 in Latvia.

Vilniaus Prekyba posted annual sales last year of 881 million euros, a 34.5 percent increase year on year.

In its home market, Vilniaus Prekyba faces competition from another Lithuanian retail group, IKI, which operates the leading supermarket chain in the country.

IKI recently announced a strategic plans to merge all of its companies into a single retailer called Palink, which will become the only operator after the restructuring.

Another important Baltic player, ICA Ahold, operates 80 supermarkets in the Baltic states, 36 in Lithuania. The company plans to launch 35 to 40 new supermarkets in the region this year, including at least 11 in Lithuania.

Statistics in Latvia point to a booming retail market, with figures from 11 months of sales at non-specialty stores at 611.8 million lats (986 million euros), a 27 percent increase year-on-year.

The biggest players have benefited from a dynamic market. Kesko, which has a smaller presence here than in Estonia, still posted a turnover of 7.9 million lats, up from 2.3 million lats in 2001.

Lithuania's' VP Market, which operates three Maxima hypermarkets and 52 T-Market stores in Latvia, recorded a 50 million lat turnover over the first nine months of 2002.

The company says it plans to open three more Maxima stores and increase the total of T-Market stores to 90 nationwide.

Analysts at the Riga-based TIK consulting center said the market remained ripe for foreign operators.

In the future, the Baltic states may see some of the gigantic retailers from even further afield - such as France's Carrefour and Britain's Tesco - enter the lucrative market.